AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Jeep's design chief says the replacement for the Jeep Liberty will be much different from the current model and should attract new buyers, but he offered assurances Jeep isn't turning its back on its rugged heritage.
"It's definitely not the old Liberty," Mark Allen said Tuesday after a preview of Jeep concepts built for the upcoming Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah. "It's a step in the right direction. It's a much more efficient Jeep, it's a much more efficient-looking Jeep, honestly. It's not what we have now."
Jeep launched the Liberty in 2001 to replace the aging Cherokee. The SUV was redesigned for the 2008 model year, with new styling that squared off the first generation's curves for a more boxy, masculine look. Since then, little has changed inside or outside the Liberty while Jeep has updated the majority of its lineup.
The new model, which like the Liberty will be built in Toledo, will use Chrysler Group's versatile front-wheel-drive platform that also will go under the upcoming Dodge Dart. A more efficient engine and transmission combination should greatly improve fuel mileage. Four-wheel drive is expected to be offered.
Mr. Allen said he was proud of the vehicle's design but declined to outline any specific clues or give size comparisons with the current model. So far, no images have leaked of the vehicle's sheet metal, though several automotive magazines and Internet blogs published spy photos said to be of a test car. However, that vehicle was clad in body panels from an Alfa Romeo Giulietta and offered no real hints at what the new SUV will look like.
Mike Manley, the brand's chief executive officer, said Jeep will unveil the new model early next year. That likely will come in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Michael Barchick, vice president and general manager at Charlie's Dodge Chrysler Jeep in Maumee, said dealers have been told little about the coming model, aside from being encouraged to build up inventories to hold them over from August until the new vehicle hits showrooms.
Unquestionably, the Wrangler sits alone atop Jeep's capability ladder. But many of the brand's buyers and enthusiasts believe all Jeep products should have the ability to go off-road.
That discussion, especially over the switch from a rear-wheel to front-wheel-drive platform, has raged online and offline as die-hard fans worry the replacement will be too car-like and not capable when the blacktop runs out.
Mr. Allen is aware of those concerns but promises there's nothing to be afraid of.
"Will it have off-road chops? It will," he said. "I'm impressed with what I've seen so far. It's not a Giulietta with a Jeep body on it. It's not. There's some real Jeep-specific hardware in it."
Mr. Barchick isn't concerned that basing the vehicle on a front-wheel-drive platform will turn away potential buyers.
"If there are, I think it'll probably be very few," he said. "It's a small SUV and the small SUV market is pretty strong. I don't think that'll be a turn-off."
The vehicle will bring with it a second shift and 1,100 new jobs. Chrysler has committed to pouring $500 million into the Toledo Assembly complex to expand and retool the plant for the Liberty replacement and eventually up to four additional vehicles.
Chrysler hasn't said when it intends to shut down the Liberty line for retooling, which will take four to five months, but union officials previously told The Blade production would end the first week of August.
In the meantime, construction continues on the expansion.
"Things are progressing," Chrysler spokesman Jodi Tinson said Wednesday. "We've had good weather."
Even as one of the senior models in Jeep's lineup, the Liberty has been selling well. Chrysler Group reported sales of 14,194 in the year's first two months, a 43 percent increase over the same period last year. Jeep is currently offering a $3,000 incentive on the Liberty.
Chrysler officials haven't come right out and said what they intend to call the new vehicle, though it seems to be a choice between Liberty or Cherokee -- the name of the model Liberty replaced.
"The Cherokee has a huge amount of equity. Liberty, I think, has built up some equity as well," Mr. Manley said. "I don't think we're going to invent a name."
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